We invited our neighbor to church. We’d gotten to know her and her family over five years. Ours is an all-around neighborly relationship. But when we talked to her about church, she got a little anxious.
“I’ve never been in a Mennonite church before,” she said. “Do I have to wear something special?”
My wife assured her we had no dress code, and she and her daughter gave us a shot.
Our neighbor’s question wasn’t all that surprising. I’ve heard heard similar sentiments plenty of times. Though our community boasts three Mennonite Church USA congregations — two in town and one in the country — say “Mennonite” in Moundridge, Kan., and many folks think of the Holdeman Mennonites, who dress Plain and have a strong presence in our community.
This is especially the case for newcomers, who’ve raised our community’s population to just under 2,000. Yet, while the town grew by 8% between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, our congregation plateaued. New families have joined us, but a number of elders have gone on to glory while our youth have hit the road for college and then on to Wichita or Kansas City.
Evolving demographics and lagging growth lines prompted me and several West Zion leaders to ask whether changing our name might make it easier for newcomers to connect.
In 1888, Mennonite settlers traveled west to central Kansas from Zion Mennonite Church in Donnellson, Iowa. When the time came to name their new congregation, they squeezed their creative juices and called it West Zion Mennonite Church (actually, they called it Mennonitische West Zions Gemeinde; the current name dates to 1925).
Here we are now, on the east end of a town in which few can tell you what “Zion” is and “Mennonite” is freighted with misunderstanding.
Our congregation began a yearlong journey of conversation and visioning. Exploring a name change was one aspect of a larger movement to become more missionally limber. After 12 months of prayer, discernment, roundtable discussions, surveys and innumerable conversations in living rooms and the parking lot after church, we arrived at a vote.
As the day of the congregational vote came, I reflected on the one question that consistently came up — one that struck me as both highly pertinent and difficult to answer: Would changing our name make any difference?
There has been little work done to track congregations that have changed their name and removed “Mennonite” yet remained with their conference and denomination. A recent article in Christian Leader documents how the trend toward non-Mennonite names has accelerated in recent years in the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Congregations have forgone their denominational designation in favor of names like Ridgepoint Church, Cross Timbers Church and New Life Community.
Things are different within the wider Mennonite world. While there have always been congregations that have dropped “Mennonite” because of theological differences, those name-changing congregations often also seem to be more likely to leave their conference and denomination. Name change for them implied a rejection of a particular Mennonite identity.
I set out to discover what happened with churches that had changed their name and remained. I wanted to know if their name change had resulted in growth and how their Mennonite identity had functioned when “Mennonite” was removed. I interviewed seven pastors and leaders within MC USA and LMC (the former Lancaster Mennonite Conference) and exchanged emails and texts with several more.
Those I spoke with noted two movements in their congregations made possible by a name change. The first was internal: It helped them deepen their missional focus. The second was external: It lowered barriers for newcomers to participate.
An act of hospitality
In Fairfax, Va., Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata says his congregation’s name change helped them engage more deeply in the community. Fairfax is a diverse suburb of Washington, D.C. Mennonites, if they’re known at all, are often perceived as a niche group that is possibly exclusionary.
Some five years ago, Northern Virginia Mennonite Church changed its name to Daniels Run Peace Church. Daniels Run is a creek that runs through the neighborhood. An elementary school and park already take their names from Daniels Run, so for the church to adopt it signaled a deeper missional focus on the community.
Today, Daniels Run Peace Church rents space to several churches and groups, hosts a community garden, provides storage for a local food bank, operates a tool lending shed, has solar panels that power electric car chargers and is building a playground as it lays the groundwork for a new daycare center.
The congregation understood its name change as an act of hospitality. New people have joined, but the biggest impact has been on missional identity and neighborhood vision.
In Lancaster County, Pa., Pastor Jeff High describes the transformation that took place as Ephrata Mennonite Church became Alive Church Ephrata. Taking its name from Ephesians 2:5, the LMC congregation has been on a decadelong journey of becoming more engaged in their city. The name change was one piece in a fresh vision for outreach that led them to open their building to a daycare, a youth program that has grown beyond the church’s space and a Spanish-speaking congregation that meets on Sunday afternoons.
High says a name change needs to be more than a marketing gimmick. It should describe who God has called you to be. Our consumer society can smell marketing a mile away. “If they feel that they’re being marketed to, you’ve lost them,” he says.
Alive Church is still seeking numerical growth, but the new name has contributed to a fresh sense of purpose. “We’re Alive Church for a reason,” High says. “God has placed us here to be us, not to be the church down the road.”
Those Anabaptist schismatics
What it means to be us is a question that has dogged the Mennonite movement from the beginning. The 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons directed his writings to “Christians” or “the brethren.” He resisted the proliferation of groups centered on a human leader — Melchiorites, Obbenites, Dirkites and others — writing in one defense, “We are not thus divided.”
“Mennonite” was not a name he sought for the people he shepherded. Instead, Menno began all his works by citing 1 Corinthians 3:11: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Troy Osborne, who teaches Mennonite history at Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario, told me that Menno seems to have spent little time on the name of the movement, instead focusing on “making sure his followers bore the fruits of a regenerated spirit.”
As Menno’s spiritual descendants spread across Europe, they mainly used monikers highlighting their emphasis on adult baptism, going by Taufgesinnte in Germany, Doopsegezinden in Holland and simply “the Brethren” in Switzerland.
It was outsiders who first called these groups “Mennonites,” seeking to deride them as schismatics, followers of a man named Menno rather than Jesus Christ.
Yet even today, many of the fastest- growing Mennonite groups — including the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia and the three Mennonite synods in Indonesia — do not have “Mennonite” in their names.
Lowering the barriers
West Zion’s discussion of a name change flushed out two competing visions of what it means to be Mennonite.
Are we an ethnic group defined by last names, traditional foods and town of origin? As one older member put it, “I’m a full-blooded Mennonite. I can’t give that up.”
Or does Mennonite mean a shared way of life following Jesus, one defined by faith convictions and practices?
Is it ethnos or ethos? And if Mennonite is an ethnic group, then can someone not born into a Mennonite family — like my Peruvian wife — ever truly be more than a visitor?
Our leadership emphasized an identity rooted in Jesus, one that doesn’t require the word “Mennonite” on the sign and that could offer a more expansive welcome for people without a traditional Mennonite pedigree.
Pastors I interviewed described how name change lowered barriers for newcomers to participate. Rich Nolt of Crossings Community Church, an LMC congregation formerly known as Erisman Mennonite Church, told me his congregation didn’t want to create a stumbling block to growth for people who didn’t know who Erisman was (he donated land for the church in 1798) or what a Mennonite was.
Nolt describes the name “Erisman Mennonite” as “a very tiny hole for people to get through.” The people were welcoming, but the name sometimes led to misunderstanding.
In any case, the congregation wasn’t simply rebranding. Nolt says the name speaks to their renewed focus on “the cross, our hope in Jesus and a desire to continue ministering to the many who pass by our church daily.”
Simón Rendón of McMinnville, Ore., pastors two congregations — one English-speaking, one Spanish. Both have changed their name to become River of Life Church/Iglesia Rio de Vida. The previous names were First Mennonite Church and Centro Cristiano Pentecostes.
Rendón describes himself as a charismatic Mennonite who values his Anabaptist roots. But for many Hispanic folks in his area, Menonita brings to mind the conservative colonies in Chihuahua, Mexico. They might like queso menonita (Mennonite cheese), but worshiping in an iglesia menonita (Mennonite church) would be a stretch.
Matthew Shedden, pastor of Defiance Church in Glenwood Springs, Colo., told me the growth impact of going from Glenwood Springs Mennonite Church to Defiance Church has been “a little bit exponential.”
“Every year we grow more people than we did the year before,” he says, including many children. The new name has been a doorway for evangelism. In ski-lift conversations, he can focus on Jesus and the message of the gospel rather than having to give a mini-lesson in Reformation history.
Tim Amor, pastor of Summit Street Church in Beatrice, Neb. (until recently Beatrice Mennonite Church), shared a similar story of growth in a webinar for Western District Conference of MC USA. Nearly every week since their October 2021 name change, they’ve had new people visit. “That’s never happened [before],” Amor says. They previously got “one new person maybe in a year.”
Yet even pastors who see missional potential in a name change admit it is not a panacea. Changing a name will not fix a church. Says Jeff High, the Ephrata pastor, “You still need to be out there personally relating to folks.”
The vote at West Zion
On Jan. 23, it was time for my church to vote on a name change. I was seated near the tellers. When I heard them discussing which way the rounding would go, I knew the proposal was in trouble. In the end, although 65% voted to change our name to Eastside Fellowship, the proposal fell short of the constitutional two-thirds minimum.
What’s next? A name change was always only one part of a larger vision. We’ve seen a lot of positive developments, as well as some fruit — not least in four new families who have connected in the last year and a half, a thriving junior high youth group and sustained prayer.
But a name change was the boldest idea. In the future, as congregational demographics shift, I suspect leadership may want to take a second look at it.
For now, all our labor is for Jesus Christ, who gives us what we need for his mission. As the Apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 3:22-23: “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas” (or Menno), “all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan., and author of The Hunger Inside: How the Meal Jesus Gave Transforms Lives (Paraclete, 2022).